The truth is the long-standing narrative about what causes carpal tunnel syndrome is actually more complex than just overusing your hands (or typing a lot). To get the scoop on how you can protect your hands (and their nerves), we had some experts break down exactly what the deal is.
What is carpal tunnel syndrome?
If you stare at screens and type for a living, the threat of CTS likely lives rent-free in your head. But knowing what this condition actually is—and what it isn’t—is a good way to put to rest the worry that comes with every ache and pain in your hands. According to Nadir Mawji, MDT, PT, Ontario-based physiotherapist, carpal tunnel syndrome only occurs when a specific nerve that goes into your hand is compressed. This nerve is called the median nerve.
“There’s a tunnel—the literal carpal tunnel—in your wrist where the median nerve and several tendons pass through into your hand,” says occupational therapist Rafael E. Salazar II, MHS, OTR/L, CEO and President of ProActive Rehabilitation and Wellness. Oftentimes, due to inflammation in this small space, the median nerve gets pressed and squished, causing sensations of numbness, tingling, and even burning in the hand and fingers—typically the thumb, index, and middle fingers, he explains.
A common misconception is that any hint of these symptoms is surely CTS. Fortunately, that’s not the case. The hand, wrist, and forearm are very complex, and those symptoms could point to a number of different injuries or issues. Another misconception? The only way to improve CTS is surgery. The fact is, there are other ways to reduce inflammation.
Can you get carpal tunnel syndrome from typing?
CTS is caused by anything that induces pressure or “entrapment” of the median nerve. This means repetitive motion that requires you to flex and unflex your wrist, says certified hand therapist Brenda Cummings, OTR/L, OTD, at Colorado In Motion. In other words, CTS is considered a repetitive strain injury, she says.
So, it follows that the people at greatest risk of developing this condition are folks doing irritating movements repeatedly, says Cummings. The key word is “irritating” since that can include people who have poor form when typing on their computer, particularly typing with your hands at an angle, rather than flat or “neutral.”
That’s because when your hands are at an angle, they are flexing—and prolonged flexing can restrict that pathway for the median nerve and tendons to comfortably fit through, which leads to friction or inflammation, Salazar II says.
How can you avoid carpal tunnel syndrome if you work a desk job?
For people with desk jobs, Salazar II explains that it’s important to keep your arm and wrist in a flat, straight line. If you need to rest your arms on your desk or chair to do so, that’s fine, he says. The challenge comes when you’re working on a laptop in a comfy chair, on the couch, or snuggled up in bed. These positions force your wrists to bend at some funky angles, leading to that prolonged flexing that can cause CTS. If you simply must work from bed, make sure to take breaks and prop your arms up with pillows to get that neutral arm position.
If you are experiencing tingling, numbness, or burning in your hand or fingers, it’s best not to shrug it off. Your body is telling you that something needs to change, whether the task itself or your positioning while doing it. It’s always best to reach out to a trusted provider if your symptoms worsen or aren’t getting better. Salazar II says they may recommend splinting, stretches, or nerve glide exercises, which can all help the inflamed areas to heal.